February 12, 2021

Toxicologist Dr Joe Rotella on snakebites

We sat down with Dr Joe Rotella, Northern Health Clinical Toxicologist, to talk all things snakebites. Joe explains how to stay safe during snake season and what to do if you or someone you’re with is bitten.

Why is snakebite management important for the community to learn about? 

It’s important for a few reasons. Firstly, snakebites are treatable. We have a safe treatment and a hospital that can manage snakebites effectively. It’s also important to note that snakebites are avoidable, so educating your children about what not to do is very helpful, as well as training pet dogs so they don’t approach snakes. One of the ways people can get bitten is if their dog goes up to a snake. Some snake handlers run snake-avoidance classes to teach dogs to avoid rather than pursue snakes.

It’s also good for the community to know where snakes are more likely to be, so they can best avoid them. For example, long grass, under piles of wood. Parents should teach their kids to stomp their feet if walking through long grass – and most importantly, leave snakes alone if you see them!

When are people most at risk of snakebites?

Usually when spring starts to warm up, that’s when we see bites start to occur because they become more active and in summertime, they are out and about. Snakes like long grass and anywhere it’s relatively warm – so beaches and scrubland, and where there’s lots of wildlife like parks.

The most common risk group to be bitten by snakes are males who are intoxicated who find a snake in its normal setting and they try and pick it up. So one of the key things to remember is that, if you see a snake, it’s not your prerogative to kill it or try and pick it up – that’s when you’re most likely to be bitten because, from their perspective, it’s an attack.

What should you do if you see a snake? 

Definitely do not try and pick it up! It depends on where you see it – if it’s near a playground or a park, then you should give your local council a call.

For people who live further out in places like Kinglake, Wollert and Wallan, it’s important to be aware of the places snakes like to go to, for example big wood piles and bales of hay. Be careful and mindful around these places. If you do have areas of long grass or you’ve seen snakes in the area, I would recommend wearing boots and not letting your children run around barefoot in long grass – and supervise your pets and children when around these areas.

Generally snakes will try whatever they can to get away from you – it’s only if you back them into a corner they would typically strike. They’re not aggressive by nature towards humans because we’re bigger. So if you see one, just take a few steps back and take your dog and your kids away. Don’t try to move them and don’t try to kill them.

What does one do when they or someone they are with is bitten by a snake?

Firstly, don’t panic. Secondly, lie down and call 000. We encourage people to lie down as the venom circulates through your lymphatics (little vessels that run alongside your veins). So, if you run, the muscles will squeeze the lymphatics and push the venom up and circulate it around your body.

If you have a bandage, we recommend putting one on. We don’t recommend tourniqueting limbs as you can compromise the blood supply too much but a simple bandage will be fine. If you don’t have anything else, just lie still and call 000 as they have all the necessary equipment and they manage snakebites very well.

So if a snakebite does occur, it’s important to know that they are treatable. If you do the right thing when you are bitten, like lying down and staying still, you’re likely to have a better outcome.

How common are snakebites?

According to The Australian Snakebite Project, in over 10 years, approximately 1,500 people were bitten by snakes – with approximately 87 people a year being envenomed.

Brown snakes are the most common, followed by tiger snakes. In Victoria, we’re lucky we only have three overall snake species that are endemic – brown, tiger and red-bellied black. There’s been about two deaths per year on average. Usually the people who don’t do well, are people who have immediate effects. Brown snakes can cause sudden cardiac arrest or collapse – so if you are unable to get immediate medical attention, that can lead to a worse outcome.

There are also a group of people who we class as ‘suspected snakebites’ – so people who have been out in the grass, they feel a sharp pain and they see a scratch on their leg or a puncture wound but they haven’t seen a snake. We treat these as snakebites, put bandages on and complete blood tests over 12 hours to test for envenomation. From an Australian snakebite point of view, the rule is we treat everyone the same way.

Tiger snakes are the only snake in Victoria that cause neurotoxicity so we usually look to see if the patient has signs of this. Brown snakes affect your blood clotting but generally don’t cause any neurological symptoms, but are associated with people collapsing. Red-bellied black snakes are probably the most mild – they can affect your clotting a little bit but their bites tend to be a lot more painful, and they can sometimes get complications around the bite site.

Do you have anything else to add?

If people have questions or concerns, they can always call the Victorian Poison Centre on 13 11 26 but ultimately if they think that they or someone they’re with has been bitten by a snake, then they need to call an ambulance and come to hospital. Even if we don’t find any evidence of envenomation, the safest option is to still go to hospital.

Gaboon Viper (the largest fangs in the world) taken by Joe